Ben Foakes laughs sheepishly when asked for his reaction to the ringing endorsement he recently received from Sir Andrew Strauss, who lauded him as the best wicketkeeper in the world.
‘I don’t know about that,’ he smiles modestly. ‘Stewie started that off a few years ago and I’ve not thanked him for it!’
Surrey director of cricket Alec Stewart did indeed hail his county player as the world’s No 1 gloveman back in 2017, some 18 months before Foakes had even made his England debut in Sri Lanka.
Sir Andrew Strauss lauded Ben Foakes (pictured) as the best wicketkeeper in the world
Strauss (left) has confirmed that Foakes will keep wicket in the three-Test series in the West Indies
Since then, however, the 29-year-old has appeared in just eight Tests and been forced to play third fiddle to Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow. That is, until now.
England’s interim managing director Strauss confirmed earlier this month that Foakes will keep wicket in the three-Test series in West Indies, with Bairstow selected as a specialist batsman and Buttler axed altogether. It means, for the first time since the start of England’s 2019 tour of the Caribbean when Foakes played the first two Tests before being dropped, the gloves are now his to lose.
‘It’s a really good feeling going knowing you’re going to keep and I am excited for the opportunity,’ Foakes tells Sportsmail over Zoom from his home in London before flying out to Antigua Thursday.
For the first time since 2019 the gloves are Foakes to lose with Jonny Bairstow selected as a batsman and Jos Buttler axed
‘There’s probably been only one phase when I was No1. In Sri Lanka, I came in for Jonny, then on the West Indies tour that followed, I started as No1 and that’s been it. I’ve been around squads as back-up and then in India last year I was very much keeping because Jos had gone home.
‘It is tricky being in and out of the team. The hardest thing is the preparation. What are you actually preparing for? With the highs you get when things go well, when you then get dropped, you can go through the wringer mentally.’
Foakes certainly went through that mental wringer last summer, when he feared his international chance may have gone for good.
Having been selected to play his first home Test against New Zealand at Lord’s last May, he suffered a freak injury in the Surrey dressing room, tearing his hamstring and ruling him out of action for four months.
Foakes (pictured) feared his international change may have gone for good when he suffered a freak injury last May
‘We had just finished a four-day match with Middlesex and 10 minutes after I came off, I slipped on my heel in my socks and went into the splits,’ he recalls.
‘I thought I’d cramped up so I got back up and sat there for a while. But then I tried to move my leg and I couldn’t. I knew something was a bit dodgy so I called the physio through and he said, “That’s not good”.
‘After getting that injury, I was 100 per cent thinking, “Is my opportunity over?”. I’ve had that three or four times, that whole, “I think that might be it” and then I’ve come back in.
‘It changes so quickly. You are never potentially too far in or too far out. I’ve realised it is a lot healthier just to see it as a game of cricket and not look beyond that.’
Whether in or out of the Test team, what has never been in doubt is Foakes’ excellence behind the stumps. It is why, to many observers, his limited number of international appearances is a travesty.
During the second Test defeat against India in Chennai last February, legendary Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist tweeted: ‘Geez, how brilliant is Ben Foakes.’
India’s first innings of 329 in that match also set a world record for the highest Test score with no extras, mainly thanks to the superb skills of Foakes.
‘I didn’t know that,’ he admits a year on. ‘On those pitches, I was just trying to stay switched on because they were so tough to keep on.’
Instead, the only question about Foakes at Test level has been his ability with the bat, something he feels a touch aggrieved about – understandably so when considering his statistics.
He has 11 first-class centuries at an average of 38.35. In comparison, Buttler, the man who has largely kept him out of the Test team, has just seven red-ball hundreds at 32.17.
Foakes’ average is even superior to three of the specialist batsmen selected in England’s squad for the Caribbean – openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley, as well as Dan Lawrence.
Foakes’ average is even superior to three of the specialist batsmen selected by England for the Caribbean including Dan Lawrence (pictured)
‘It can be frustrating when you get looked at purely as a keeper and you get talked about like you average two,’ he says.
‘I do feel like I’ve got a decent enough record with the bat. I’m not someone who will go out and hit 100 off 50 balls but I’ve got a decent technique and I can score runs.
‘But I saw it with someone like James Foster. He got a lot more runs than people gave him credit for but sometimes people just see you as a keeper.’
Foakes, who fills the No5 slot at Surrey, admits one challenge with England has been batting lower down the order. But he proved he could adapt in his very first international knock against Sri Lanka in November 2018, when he came in at No7 with his team struggling on 103 for five and went on to hit a game-changing 107.
‘It was an incredible moment,’ he recalls. ‘I only got told the day before that I was playing. It was all very much a blur and a whirlwind.
Foakes has proved he can bat although he admits it has been challenging batting lower down the order for England
‘At the time, I thought I might get a bit of a run. I wasn’t expecting to be dropped a couple of games later. But I also knew that I had to perform almost the whole time to try and stay in the team.’
Around that time, Foakes – who has scored 410 Test runs at an average of 31.53 – admits he was already running on empty, feeling ‘burnt out’ after ‘eight years of constant cricket’.
The following winter, in 2019, he turned down the opportunity to tour with the England Lions. It is a decision he feels may have saved his career.
‘I hung on for three or four years where I wasn’t in a great place mentally and just trying to get through. I was bottling it up,’ says Foakes.
BEN FOAKES FACT BOX
Ben Foakes is not the first member of his family to have made his name in sport. His father Peter was a former Premier League referee, who tragically died from a heart attack at the age of 60.
‘I don’t really remember him as a ref because I was too young,’ says Foakes, who has 18.09.06 tattooed on his left wrist as a reminder of the day his dad passed away.
‘But he became a referee assessor and he would go around all the games and get given a box. I used to get shoved in the box, with food and drink provided for me at the age of 10!
‘I got to go into the tunnel at half-time while he spoke to the referees. I’d just be chilling there and the players would walk by. It was a really cool experience for a kid.
‘He was really sporty in general and was the one that got me into cricket. It was obviously difficult when he died but I try and do as well as I can in the sport for him and my mum.’
‘The biggest thing I needed was a month or two away from cricket. It allowed me to come back fresher and have that energy and passion for the game again.
‘I’m better now at being able to get away from cricket, not always flicking on scores and flicking on the TV.’
To help with that, Foakes also deleted his Instagram and Facebook accounts, another decision he has never looked back on. ‘The way social media is used, I don’t think it’s a great thing,’ he says.
‘It is quite a negative place in general. Whatever the topic is, it all seems to be people just going on there to have a go. There are quite a lot of troll accounts just to stir things up.
‘When I was in Sri Lanka, getting the bus to the ground, I was getting called a “f****** c***” on there. I would scroll through for half an hour and I was just like, “I don’t really use it for anything, I don’t need it”.
‘People can say criticism helps spur them on, but I find when you are in a pressurised environment, when you are trying to switch off at the end of a day and you turn your phone on and there are photos of you, whatever it says, it is just constant.
‘Not being on it definitely helps me mentally in being able to think more clearly and ignoring external pressures.’
Of course, there have also been many positive posts on social media about Foakes – not all of them to do with his cricket. One such comment came from his bat sponsor Gray-Nicolls, who declared Foakes as ‘England’s most handsome sportsman of all time’ after he made his Test debut.
‘I’m not sure what the responses would have been on that… I am getting old now,’ grins an embarrassed Foakes.
England will hope he is just coming into his prime.